I arrived in New York City over the weekend and discovered that the Rev. Forrest Church had died on Thursday, September 24, after a battle against esophageal cancer. Pastor of the Unitarian Church of All Souls on the Upper East Side for many years, Forrest Church was almost certainly the best-known and most influential Unitarian figure of the late twentieth century.
Forrest Church was in the public eye for most of his life. His father was the late Senator Frank Church [D-Idaho], who chaired committees that investigated the Central Intelligence Agency during the 1970s. Sen. Church also ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976. After serving four terms in the Senate, Church was defeated for re-election in 1980. Then, in 1984, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died just three months later.
Forrest Church was 61 when he died last Thursday. He lived only two years longer than his father. But Forrest Church did something that few people are able to do — he wrote extensively about his own (impending) death. When told that his cancer was terminal, Forrest Church preached a sermon that was intended to help his congregation understand the process of death and dying. In the months that followed, he wrote a book about death and the experience of approaching his own death.
In Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow, Church wrote of his understanding of death and its meaning. At the end of it all, the Unitarian pastor and philosopher wrote of “my abiding belief in love after death.”
Significantly, Church wrote of his fascination with death. As a younger person, he had romanticized death and contemplated various scenarios of a famous demise. Later, though no longer believing himself to romanticize death, Church still seemed to see death in similar terms. Writing as a pastor, he told of a terminally ill church member who had committed suicide with the assistance of the Hemlock Society. Church wrote of his sympathy for her wish to remain in control of her life, even through her death. “I could only admire her,” he wrote.
Forrest Church was a man of intelligence and culture — assets no doubt valued by his socially elite congregation at All Souls. He was also a gifted writer. In helpful sections of the book, Church took on the “conspiracy of silence concerning death” and helpfully reminded his readers that all of us will surely die. Church saw our modern obsession with health as a barely-disguised effort to postpone death, but to no avail. Vegetarians and joggers die, the pastor reminds.
Church compared life to the voyage of the Titanic. In the end, every life hits an iceberg and sinks. His exhortation was for all people to “dare to live before you die.”
He also tied his understanding of religion to the knowledge that we shall surely die. “I draw from a strong faith tradition which, if not orthodox, invites me to explore everything from the scriptures to ancient philosophy to current events,” Church wrote. “But the object is always the same. For me, religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.”
Therefore, “if religion is our human response to being alive and having to die, the purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.”
Missing from the picture is any notion of life on the other side of death. The minister declared his belief in “love after death,” but not in life after death. The reason for this becomes more clear as Church writes of Jesus Christ. “I have no idea whether Jesus was physically resurrected or not, but I suspect he wasn’t,” he wrote. “If I am right, for many people that would be it for Jesus, period, end of story. Christianity would be a delusion, a miscommunication of events faithfully transmitted from generation to generation.”
Indeed, Church insisted that his faith was not grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, but rather in the “spiritual rebirth of Jesus’s followers.”
The disciples experienced a “saving transformation” in which the love of Jesus was reborn in them, Church suggested.
It was the love of Jesus that survived his death, Church insisted — not the life of Jesus. And that is a power available to all of us today, he promised. Forrest Church often repeated his “mantra” with words his church came to know: “Want what you have, do what you can, and be who you are.”
Forrest Church was a classical religious and theological liberal. He rejected a supernatural Christ and did not believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection. He also denied that Christianity could be reduced to some mere admiration for the teachings of Jesus. While Jesus’ teachings were “in many ways wonderful,” those same teachings were “also flawed, limited by cultural and personal experience.”
The Unitarian minister came to his theological liberalism quite early. At the age of ten, Forrest was given a Bible by his father. That Bible was the so-called “Jefferson Bible,” produced by Thomas Jefferson as an experiment in removing all references to the supernatural Jesus from the New Testament. Known formally as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, the Jefferson Bible ends with these words: “There they laid Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.” End of story. No resurrection. Jesus is simply sealed into the tomb.
If that is all there is to the life of Jesus, Christianity does indeed fall apart. Christianity would be a delusion and a misrepresentation of the truth. The New Testament clearly claims that Jesus Christ was physically raised from the dead — and that his resurrection is the promise of our own. The New Testament clearly promises life after death, not merely love after death. This is where Christianity stands or falls.
The death of Forrest Church at age 61 is a sobering reminder of our mortality. More tellingly, it is a lamentable but important reminder of the centrality of the resurrection of Christ to our Christian understanding of death and eternal life. Without the resurrection of Christ, there is no hope for us after death. We are, as Paul warned, of all people most to be pitied, for we believed in a false hope.
The Christian hope is essentially grounded in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Without life after death, love after death will not matter. No resurrection — no hope.
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